When we moved to Garden City, we didn't look like the typical Anglo-Saxon family living there. The community consisted primarily of Episcopalian families. I think ours was one of the few in the neighborhood with a vowel at the end of our last name. My father looked very Italian, with beautiful olive skin, jet-black hair, and big brown eyes. Although I resembled my mother more, I did inherit some of my dad's dark coloring, which made me feel like an outsider during my youth. I felt and looked different from the other children in our neighborhood and in school. There were so many times when people would see my father gardening out in our front yard or doing landscape work on our grounds and they would ask him questions as if he were the hired help. My father always laughed it off, without ever giving it a second thought. There was a certain amount of prejudice that existed in the 1950s, especially if you didn't look like everyone else. It hurt me deeply that people judged or looked down on my dad based on his appearance, especially because he was such a giving and generous man. If there was a blizzard or a hurricane, my dad would always be the first one out there after the storm blew over, driving around the community to see if there was any damage, downed trees, blocked drains or if anyone needed his help. I'd sometimes get to go along for the ride. He'd sit me in the front seat with him, and I felt so proud and privileged to be the one by his side.
My father was a very smart man, a voracious reader, and we all thought of him as an American history buff. In my family, we all referred to my father as the "walking encyclopedia" because of his vast knowledge on so many subjects. He knew everything about the great battles our country fought and took great pride in sharing his knowledge with my brother and me. Sometimes we'd take family trips to historical sites in upstate New York, including West Point and Fort Ticonderoga, so my father could teach us while showing us where these events took place. We'd sit around our kitchen table while he gave my older brother, Jimmy, and me impromptu quizzes or fun brainteasers to solve. Sometimes I'd figure out the answer before Jimmy. I could see the tickled look in my father's eyes—he was proud of me whenever I got it right.
On Sunday afternoons, we would take a family drive in my parents' car, something my brother and I loathed. Jimmy was six years older than me. He wanted to be with his friends on the weekends, not riding in the backseat of our car with his little sister. We'd usually end up having Sunday dinner at a family-style restaurant that my parents loved. As we stood in line waiting to be seated, my father often told anyone who would listen that I was the "brains" of our family.
My father always encouraged me to get a good education, to do the things I enjoyed most, and to never be afraid. We'd sit on a cushioned metal glider on the front porch of our brick house in Elmont, looking up at the stars together. He showed me the various constellations in the sky, explained the solar system, and reminded me to dream big.
"See that moon up there. You can reach that high. Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars, Susan. You can be anything you want to be," he'd say. "Never be afraid because you can be anything you want to be."
I know to some people it may sound clichéd now, because we've all heard that advice at some point, but I was only 5 years old when he shared those inspiring and encouraging words with me for the first time. They made an indelible impression, one I've never forgotten. My father was fantastic in so many ways. I was definitely "Daddy's little girl." In fact, that was his favorite song to sing to me for many years growing up.